with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:4-11
I Epiphany - January 11, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I’ve been writing this sermon since our Monday staff meeting. One of our staff mused out loud that this was the story about ‘The Transformation of Jesus.”
Not ‘The Transfiguration of Jesus” – where Jesus becomes radiant and speaks with Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor (Matthew 17:1-9). No, ‘The Transformation of Jesus.” The thinking was that through baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus was transformed to do the ministry he was called by God to do.
I’ve been musing about that distinction ever since – about transformation and the role of destiny. Yes, I said destiny. Blame it, in part, on my heritage. The Portuguese think quite a lot about ‘destiny’. We have even perfected a genre of folk music known as ‘fado’ – meaning destiny or fate. I like to think of it as ‘Depression Music of The Portuguese.'
Blame it also, at least in part, on some of the movies I have been watching this holiday season. If you have not seen ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ well, don’t miss it. It’s not the best story ever written – well, actually, it’s several stories.
It’s a love story, a story about the power of good and the forces of evil, a story about two brothers, a story about the cruelty of poverty in India, and yes, it’s a story about destiny. The thing of it is, it is a story very, very well told. Compelling. Powerful. Authentic. As brutally honest as the country in which it is filmed.
The context is the Indian version of a popular game show, “So you want to be a millionaire.” The contestant is Jamal Malik, a kid who grew up as the poorest of the poor in the slums of India, poorer that a dog – hence the name, ‘slumdog’.
By some fairly unusual twits and turns in his young life, Jamal finds himself a contestant on that game show. He is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How does he do it?
A. He’s a genius.
B. He’s cheating.
C. He’s lucky.
D. It is written.
Unlike most of real life, in this game show, there is only one correct answer. And, I suppose, therein lies the difference. In real life, the answer, more often, is: ‘all of the above.’
I think, however, that each of these four components are an important part of the human enterprise. Indeed, I think these four impact on our spirituality and relationship with God.
So, what of genius? I think we all have our own particular genius in a variety of areas. Some of us are ‘genius’ by the usual definition of that word – a person who is gifted with intelligence or skill in one or several areas. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with education. It can also mean someone with strong individuality, imagination, creativity, and innovative drive.
One of my favorite geniuses was Ms. Maybelle Bird, a then 80-something year old woman who lived in Newark when I worked there, who once said to me, “Faith is coming to the ledge and knowing that, if you jump, two things will happen – you will either find you have something solid to stand on, or you will be taught to fly.” Her faith, her wisdom, was her genius.
The second possible answer is ‘cheating.’ We all ‘cheat’ in life in some way, don’t we? Yes, of course: cheating is usually meant to describe an illegal or immoral activity; but sometimes we ‘cheat’ because the playing field was uneven to begin with. We use our intelligence, our imagination, our wit and creativity to see a way around an obstacle or a barrier – to level the playing field – and find another way to achieve our goal.
There’s a commercial I saw the other day which depicts a little boy whose father wants him to be the best baseball player in the world. After several frustrating swings and misses, he stands up, smiles broadly and exclaims, “I’m going to be the best pitcher in the world!” See also: genius.
My father always liked to repeat the aphorism that ‘genius is 10% brain, 90% strain.” I suspect that somewhere in that strain are at least a few percentage points of ‘beating the odds’, which some also refer to in the more dramatic terms of ‘cheating life’ – or ‘defying fate’.
The third possibility is luck. Well, yes. There’s that. But, what is luck? Is it merely coincidence or is does it have to do with a combination of things like, say, circumstance – being in the right place at the right time? Being born in America instead of India? Well, then again, that might be certain parts of America or to a certain class of people in India. Or, is luck a series of choices you make and suddenly, you’re behind ‘Door Number One’ and you got the two week vacation in Hawai’i and not Bozo the Clown waving a ‘Loser’ flag.
The folks in 12 Step Programs like to say that “Coincidence is the name God uses when God wants to remain anonymous.” Serendipity is another. Luck, I think, is yet another. And, I suspect, they are all alias of God as the Holy Spirit.
Finally, there’s destiny. “It is written.” Many people – some are even good Christian folk – can be heard talking about “God’s will” as if one’s role in life were to find The Big Filing Cabinet in the Sky and search until you find the file with your name on it and follow exactly what it is God wants for you.
So do you believe that? Do you believe that "God has a plan for your life?" and your job is to figure it out "God's will for you"? Really? Then, what do you make of the gift of 'free will'? How do you factor in 'freedom to choose'?
Well, I do believe that there is an 'Intelligent Design' in Life, but I don't know that it is personalized for individual lives. I do believe God wants us to live the life given to us, not waste it searching for the correct formula or proper recipe - yes, even if we make mistakes. In fact, especially when we make mistakes.
A great theologian of the early church once wrote that "the Glory of God is (hu)man(kind) fully human." I couldn't agree more.
I suspect when we get to heaven, we’ll find the words, “Just Do It!” written somewhere around the entrance to the heavenly gate.
Then again, I think it is often ‘written’ but sometimes not followed, and sometimes it is ‘written’ after it is followed. As my friend, Ed Bacon once said, “I sure am glad Mary said ‘yes’ to the Incarnation of God before the theologians had a chance to write the doctrine.”
I guess it’s like that old question, “Do the times make the person or does the person make the times?” Are we born to fulfill our destiny, or do we create our own destiny – as well as that of others? Is destiny necessarily destination?
I don’t know if Jesus was transformed by his baptism at the Jordan but then again, I don’t believe Jesus was just any ordinary man. Because I believe in the Incarnation, I believe that Jesus was fulfilling what we would call vocation – his calling from God – which, I believe we all have. We are all called through our baptism in Him, to be faithful to our vocation – to re-present Him and His Teachings in and to the world in our own unique way.
In that sense, I suppose that Baptism is our ‘destiny’ as Christians which we re-affirm at Confirmation – to become more Christ-like. And, I suppose, when we say ‘yes’ to that destiny, in that moment, we are transformed by grace to do that which God has called us to do.
Somewhere between “In the beginning . . .” and “It is written . . .” we live our lives of faith. The experiences we have, the choices we make in life, form the pathway to our own salvation. If we pay attention to our lives, we may find the answers that hold the key to the questions of our past, which may also help to unlock the questions in our future.
That, in fact, is a big part of the role of religion – to help you pay attention to your life, to the questions your life asks and the answers you have given so that you might better answer them. And, in the process of discovering or un-covering or re-covering the answers – or, perhaps, changing or re-framing the questions – you may remain true and faithful to the idea of you, the dream of you, the essential spark of you, that God had of you when you were called into being.
That’s the path which your baptism sets you on. That process can be transformational, if you choose to take it while loving mercy, doing justice and walking humbly with God. But it is your path, your process, and no one else can walk it for you. No one can become the ‘you’ God created you to be.
That’s not so much about genius or luck or cheating or something called your ‘destiny’ as it is your own unique identity. It’s not about getting the right answer, A, B, C or D. It’s not even so much about the answer as it is being faithful to living out the question.
It’s about being in those moments and choosing, like Jesus or the Slumdog Jamal – who said ‘yes’ to love, to hope, to possibility, to goodness – to seize the opportunity, when you don’t know the answer much less really understand the question, and say ‘Yes’ to something greater –and better – than yourself.
It is in those moments, I believe, if we listen carefully, we will hear God says to us, “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased."